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Pope Francis recently gave a speech to the International Association of Penal Law advocating for the improvement of prison conditions and reiterating pleas made by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI for an end to the death penalty.

Francis, however, went further than either of his predecessors by extending Catholic critiques of capital punishment to life sentences, which he condemned as the “death penalty in disguise.” His comments have reopened debates in Italy about life sentences (nearby countries such as Spain and Portugal have abolished them) and prompted Catholic bishops in the Philippines to denounce life sentencing as “inhuman.”

Those of us who lean conservatively where criminal justice is concerned would do well to take to heart the Pope’s critique of the “vengeful trend which permeates society” and reflect on how our attitudes toward convicts line up with the teaching of Scripture. “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us (Heb 13:3).

The Pope’s comments should provoke a searching examination of conscience in the United States, which incarcerates a larger proportion of its population than any other country in the world. A country in which 80,000 people languish (many unnecessarily) in the psychological hell of solitary confinement should listen to a Pope who brands as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” the practice of placing prisoners in a situation where they “lack contact with other human beings.”

That said, it is difficult to see how opposition to life imprisonment in principle could be a legitimate development of Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church has long upheld the right of a society to remove serious offenders from the community. If an offense is serious enough to warrant permanent removal from the community, this can be done either through the deprivation of life (capital punishment) or liberty (life without parole). In a 1952 allocution, Pope Pius XII taught:

In the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.

As with all rights, there are limits to the right of societies to punish, and Pope Francis correctly highlights in his Address what is too often forgotten—that criminal punishment must take into account the dignity of the offender as well as his victims. John Paul II proposed a development of Catholic doctrine by teaching that “bloodless means” of punishment should be preferred to the death penalty wherever possible. In other words, the teaching of contemporary Popes has been that it is more in keeping with human dignity—a property shared by both criminals and their victims—to limit capital punishment to cases of “absolute necessity” (Evangelium Vitae, 56).

The problem is that John Paul II viewed the “necessity” of the death penalty purely in terms of its function of public defense. That is, the death penalty is only seen as necessary when physical incarceration is not viable, and therefore there is no other way of protecting the community against violent offenders who pose a threat to the safety of others. This is a “problem” because previous Popes like Pius XII clearly taught that capital punishment had not merely a defensive function but one of “expiation”—that is, the offender must suffer loss in order to redress the disorder caused by his crime. Expiatory punishment can even be morally redemptive for the offender if accepted willingly. Yet this function of punishment seems to have been quietly dropped in recent teaching.

In his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted—among the causes of the sexual abuse crisis in the Irish Church—a loss of respect for the role that punishment plays in safeguarding the common good:

In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.

Time and again, extremely serious sex crimes committed by clergy went unpunished. The prevailing attitude in the 1970s was that as long as clergy went through therapy programs that were believed to counteract the physical threat they might pose to the safety of children, expiatory punishment such as turning them over to civil authorities, removing them from the clerical state, or banishing them to monasteries, served no useful purpose.

One of the reasons that isolated cases of sex abuse eventually turned into full-blown national crises was that although ecclesiastical authorities did have some (largely inadequate) regard to the need to defend children from abuse, they had no regard for the need to punish those who perpetrated the abuse. For the 1970s generation, the entire concept of “punishment”—whether relating to the theology of the atonement, the concept of the Eucharist as a propitiatory Sacrifice, or to holding clergy accountable for violations of moral and canon law—was something to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Catholics should think very carefully before we ask the civil community to apply to itself a philosophy of punishment that has borne such bitter fruit within the Church.

Those of us who are Catholic should confidently trust that the Church will eventually untangle the Gordian knot into which Catholic teaching on the purposes of punishment seems to have become tied—and we should accept whatever teaching that process of untying reveals. But until that happens, it is difficult to see how further developments of doctrine can come from previous developments—in this case, opposition to life sentencing developing from Catholic teaching on the death penalty—that have not yet been adequately explained.

Aaron Taylor, a Ph.D. student in ethics at Boston College, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and from Heythrop College, University of London. This article has been updated to remove a reference to the case of Jerry Dewayne Williams.

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